Logistics without a computer? It is possible and on a quite large scale!

2021/09/01 at 11:37 AM

When we sit comfortably at our computers and complain that some documents don’t come to us on time, let’s think – somewhere there in distant India, one of the 200,000 parcels, completely unnoticed by computers, goes to a satisfied recipient.

Let’s start with the numbers because these are really impressive! Every day, 5,000 couriers deliver 200,000 hot meals to their recipients, and then – in the other direction – they collect metal food containers from them and take them to the place of departure. Most of these couriers are illiterate men who mark the parcels using a system of only four characters. This is how Dabbawalla works (also spelt Dabbawala or Dabbawallahs).

Dabbawala couriers in India, source: Joe Sachs / Wikimedia Commons

What is Dabbawalla?

Dabbawalla is a courier system based on bicycle transport. It is one of the oldest courier systems in the world. The core idea is that every day in their homes, housewives (wives or cooks) prepare hot meals for their men. These are picked up by couriers and then delivered while still warm to busy men. But, to add spice to the whole process, we have to say that:

– delivery points are often very remote from places of origin – in India many men work far away from home;

– parcels are transferred several times between couriers and means of transport such as bicycle and train;

– the transport time must be very short so that the meal does not cool down;

– the places of delivery are usually large and busy metropolises;

– the whole process is done without computers;

– the punctuality rate is 99.99 per cent.

When was it created and how is the whole process organised?

Once we have cooled down from the first impression, it is worth taking a look at the entire process. The concept of Dabbawalla was created at the end of the 19th century. It is said that one of the then Mumbai bankers complained that he could not eat a decent meal during working hours. He wanted to be able to eat dishes prepared by his own wife at lunchtime. It turned out that in those days, when food brought in by colonialists from Great Britain dominated the official tables in Mumbai, there were more people like this banker. Hindu officials preferred to eat Indian food. And so the system grew until the present day when more than five thousand couriers meet the needs of their customers every day.

And although today we have various types of restaurants and street food, and microwave ovens in the offices, there is no shortage of people willing still to use Dabbawalla, because the monthly cost of such transport is at the level of 12-15 US dollars. Every day, the dish is picked up from the lady of the house in a specially marked canteen or another container. A bicycle courier then takes them to the appropriate train. Then, at the drop-off station (The most popular in this system is Churchgate, where almost half of all food packages are delivered.) The containers are properly sorted and transported by other bicycle couriers to home cooking gourmets. The standard is that the meal should arrive between 12:30 and 13:00. Soon the whole process starts all over again, this time in the opposite direction because the empty container finds its way back to the lady of the house.

Bicycle is a popular vehicle among Dabbawala couriers in India, source: Joe Sachs / Wikimedia Commons

National pride of the Hindus

The Dabbawalla system is the national pride of the Indians, it’s obvious. Numerous scientific research was undertaken on it, films and reports were produced. The system was also entered in the Guinness Book of Records. And the British Prince Charles himself was so impressed with Dabbawalla that he invited several representatives of the profession to his wedding. But perhaps the proudest are the couriers themselves, who enjoy high esteem among their countrymen. They are synonymous with reliability and teamwork. Indeed, teamwork, uniform salaries and responsibility for the proper execution of the order are the reason, why team managers of many companies also seek research on this phenomenon.

The data describing the Dabbawalla system becomes even more impressive when we realise that there are several hundred languages and dialects in India and offices are located in variously marked office buildings and pavilions. Nevertheless, four marks applied to the food container are enough to deliver the dinner to the right address. And although technology is already entering this amazing process in the form of orders collected via the Internet or SMS, the entire logistics service still does not require computers, relying on the commitment, intuition and conscience of couriers.

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